In writing Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan, Craig Shirley has written the Reagan book that had to be written.
The long time Reagan biographer (author of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America and Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All ) has written a superb book that tells of the last days of the president millions of Americans had come to love and admire.
Chapter after chapter tells the moving tale of the post-presidency for its central figure. Writes Shirley:
Reagan had bounded out of the White House and Washington in January 1989 on a wave of good will, the affection of many of his countrymen, and an astonishing record of accomplishment. The country he’d inherited eight years earlier was broken and demoralized. The best days seemed in the past. A country that under Franklin Roosevelt had defeated the evil of Berlin and Tokyo — which in turn under Harry Truman rebuilt a war-torn European continent, created the United Nations, and asked nothing from those countries except some land on which to bury her dead — was a thing of the past….
… In 1980 America was losing a Cold War, the American economy was in tatters, and the American spirit was all but snuffed out. Cynicism was the celebrated disposition and Jacobinism their warming fire.
Eight years later, that country was winning the Cold War, while a humiliated and discredited Moscow was on its knees, suing for peace. Reagan believed that America operated on a higher moral plane than any other country in history, and he approached the presidency in that fashion. Like all Americans, he rejected monarchy, he rejected empire, he rejected High Toryism and neo-conservatism, and he approached the job with reverence and humility and a fundamental belief in the individual.
The day he left the White House the American people, according to a New York Times/CBS poll, gave him a whopping 68% approval rating. He was more popular going out than he was when he came in, a feat, as Shirley points out, that eluded predecessors Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and Truman. Only Eisenhower — the hero of D-Day — could say the same.
Doubtless this was in part not simply because he had restored the economy by launching an economy that created 19 million jobs. As Shirley notes, National Review editor John O’Sullivan pointed to the fact that Reagan had restored “the idea of America” — leaving a country that had once again become what Reagan had always pictured it to be — a “shining city on a hill.”
The story Shirley unfolds — of the Reagan departure from the White House, the opening of the Reagan Library, the sad realization that the physically vigorous president was suffering from Alzheimer’s and ultimately his death on June 5, 2004, and the reaction of the American people to that death — is detailed, colorful, and summons the emotions. Particularly riveting is the account of Reagan’s final hours — surrounded by family. Shirley quotes this account by Reagan daughter Patti Davis as she wrote it in The Long Goodbye, her poignant account of losing her father to his long fight with Alzheimer’s:
My brother is … sitting beside the hospital bed; his eyes are soft and sad. His hand is resting on our father’s back — a back grown thin, the bones sharp and narrow as twigs.…My father’s breathing is even more ragged, and his closed eyes are rimmed in shadow.… As the morning goes on and sun burns through the fog, his breathing grows more threadbare. At several moments we think this is it. We tighten the circle around him, touch him lightly, tell him we love him. He inhales sharply; he makes a snoring sound and we laugh through our tears… there is nothing else we can do.… Just before one o’clock we know that this really is it. His breathing is telling us — so shallow it sounds like it can’t even be reaching his lungs. His face is angled toward my mother’s. He opens his eyes — both eyes — wide. They are focused and blue. They haven’t been blue like that in more than a year but they are now. My father looks straight at my mother, holds onto the sight of her face for a moment or two, and then gently closes his eyes and stops breathing. The room is quiet except for soft weeping; my mother whispers, “That’s the greatest gift you could have given me.”
Now, as was said of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan belonged to the Ages.
The portrait Shirley draws of the funeral that follows — of the difference between the pundits and the people in their reactions to Reagan’s death — is as vivid as is it is unsurprising. A useful reminder as America finds itself on the edge of a presidential campaign where voters are swarming to Donald Trump while the pundits have continually been shocked at his popularity. This isn’t the first time this set of wildly opposite assessments of a president or presidential candidate has appeared in American history and one suspects it will not be the last. Lincoln too was the subject of this kind of wide gulf separating elites from the people — ridiculed as a “baboon” (by no less than Union General George McClellan) and a “gorilla” by others, at his death the 16th president was the subject of a vast and deep national mourning, with tens of thousands in various cities turning out to witness multiple funeral processions.
So too would it be this dichotomy for the 40th president. Writes Shirley:
A clear pattern was emerging after Reagan’s death. The liberal elite of the national media and academia were skeptical of his stewardship of the presidency, as well as of Reagan as a man, and said so loudly. On the other hand the citizenry who “got” Reagan were nearly all complimentary. “He was a good president. He did our country great. He was a better president than (George W.) Bush,” said one mourning American citizen.”
And so it went through the week. While one “elitist college professor” sneered that Reagan was a “racist” (Shirley notes the week would not have been complete without this kind of inanity coming from some liberal somewhere), hundreds of thousands swarmed Washington to watch Reagan’s casket pass by or stand in line to go through the Capitol rotunda as he lay in state.
By bringing together the details of Reagan’s death and the funeral that followed, a portrait made possible by extensive interviews with the Reagan family, friends, and members of the Reagan administration, Craig Shirley has compiled a fascinating and — speaking as someone who worked for Ronald Reagan — a wonderfully poignant account of Ronald Reagan’s “last act.”
For the Reagan fans out there, Last Act is a must — and a much needed reminder that yes, once upon a time America had a president who really did “make America great again.”
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